Perspective: Managing the state's deer population

You don't have to be superstitious to believe in beginner's luck.

I was taking my grandson out to our tree stand for the first day of youth deer season. We didn't even get there before we stopped, and he shot his deer. Done and done. It's never that easy for me, of course, and I doubt it's that easy for most of us.

When European settlers first came to North America, deer were plentiful, and hunting them as a food source was a necessity. But like many resources, deer were over-hunted. In 1646, the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, enacted a law that outlawed deer hunting from the first of May to the first of November, stating "if any person shall shoot a deer within that time, he shall forfeit five pounds."

Deer hunting continued, and as the American colonies gained independence, the westward expansion of settlers resulted in less land for deer and more people in need of their meat. Stories exist of huge hunting parties killing hundreds of deer a day. In 1880, the state of Michigan alone shipped more than 100,000 deer, destined for market in Chicago and the eastern seaboard.

It was around this time early conservationists started to voice concerns about the future of white-tailed deer in America. Around 1890, the U.S. white-tailed deer population hit rock bottom. Most states east of the Rocky Mountains had white-tailed herds numbering close to zero. The last known deer in Indiana was shot in 1893.

Hunting for sport, traditionally only the pastime of the wealthy, became popular with the middle class after the Civil War. Sportsmen soon recognized if efforts weren't made to conserve deer, there would be none left to hunt. They began working with lawmakers to change hunting laws, most of which hadn't been altered since colonial times.

In 1873, Maine adopted the first bag limit for deer: three per season. In 1895, Michigan and Minnesota imposed a limit of five deer per season. Wisconsin followed suit in 1897, limiting hunters to two deer per season. Massachusetts put a moratorium on deer hunting for five years. The effective end of hunting deer for market came in 1900, when the federal Lacey Act was passed, outlawing the interstate sale of deer taken in violation of state laws.

The state of Pennsylvania began a program in 1899 to release deer in state forests. A refuge system was developed, and the population of white-tail deer flourished. In 1907, the population of deer in Pennsylvania had grown enough to allow a limited hunting season. Two hundred bucks were taken in a state where there had been zero deer 20 years earlier.

But as happens, nature swung the other way. The deer population in Pennsylvania exploded. By the mid-1920s, huge herds could be seen everywhere in the state. Orchards and fields were being invaded and overrun with deer. In the winter of 1926, the deer population began to die by the thousands. There were simply too many. We had long ago eliminated their natural predators, the wolves. Every plant was stripped as high as the deer could reach. Yards and roadsides were littered with the bodies of starved deer.

Through trial and error, we've learned over the years deer have to be managed. Hunters can neither be allowed open season nor can they be kept from hunting entirely. It's up to us to protect deer herds, both from overpopulation and from being over-hunted. I hope you all have a safe and productive deer season this year. And I hope I'm as lucky as my grandson when it comes to harvesting a deer.

State Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, represents Missouri's 6th Senate District, and shares his perspective on statehouse issues twice a month.

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